The Rev. Canon James C. Fenhagen: “The Intimacy of God’s Love”
Today, on this Memorial weekend, we pause to remember the many men and women who have lost their lives in service to their country. The War of Independence from which we emerged as a nation, the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Viet Nam, Kuwait, Iraq—all memories of bravery and loyalty and comradeship, along with the terribly cost of life. This year, however, our memory takes on a particular sensitivity because we stand in the shadow of some 150 men and women who lost their lives in a war just ended, a war that also took the lives of thousands of Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians. So for a few moments, I invite you to embrace that memory that this Memorial weekend brings to the surface.
In a very moving article by Laura Blumenfeld and Julie Tate on the front page of the April 27 edition of the Washington Post, we meet some of these American men and women in a very real way. “One soldier wrote to his mother: “Send more M&Ms”; “A Marine asked his girlfriend to tie a yellow ribbon in her hair”; and there were many notes like these “The soldiers didn’t know that these messages would be among their last,” the article sadly reminded us, “They dealt mostly with the mundane—the blood blisters, the tent mice, and sand that crunched between their teeth. . . They died believing in their families, in the president or in their God. Rarely bitter and with scant bloodlust, they were men and (and women) of faith.” And so, for a minute, I invite you to embrace the silence of this great Cathedral as a few names are read, representing the names of many, who died for their country down through our history—lest we forget. In the silence, we remember, adding from our own history those names that we know, along with the deep sorrow that goes with them: James W. Cawley, Devon D. Jones, Kemaphoom, A. Chanawongse, Michael J. Williams, Brandon S. Tobler, and Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe, mother of two children, who was the first woman American soldier to die in the war in Iraq. May they rest in peace.
With the sorrow and love and pride still in our memories, I would like to introduce you to another memory that speaks to our sadness. It is the memory of faith thatwe heard read in this morning’s Gospel. The passage came from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, and it speaks to us of the power of the love of God to bring joy out of sadness and discouragement. John gives to us the words of Jesus spoken to his disciples just before his death and before any expectation of the Resurrection. This short passage is a part of the Church’s memory—the memory of faith born in the God’s gift of love that has the power to transform human life. “If you dwell in me,” Jesus says to his disciples, “and my words dwell in you, ask what you will, and you shall have it.” And so we pray for strength in the midst of loss whenever and wherever it occurs. We pray that the living and dead might be held together in the bond of God’s love from which comes not only sadness but joy. And then we turn again to hear the words of Jesus spoken to his disciples of long ago, and to us, his disciples who stand before him now.
Listen to his words, as so many have listened before us: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Dwell in my love.” “I have spoken thus to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete. This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this, that a man [or woman] should lay down their life for their friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you. I call you servants no longer . . . because I have disclosed to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me; I chose you. . . . This is my commandment to you: love one another.” And I would guess, as the words began to sink in, there was a profound silence. The disciples had just been invited into the heart of God. God had chosen them to be the bearers of God’s love. Jesus had reached out to them offering a friendship of the Spirit that would change their lives. A new memory had begun, passed on from one generation to another, to this moment.
Deep friendship has always been a rare gift, a gift we long for but don’t often experience. Back in the 1970s there was a song that spoke to the world about what friendship was about in a very down-to-earth way, a song that many of you worshiping here today will remember. The song was written, I believe, by Carole King, but made popular by James Taylor. It went something like this:
When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, whoa nothing, is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest nights.
You just call out my name,
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, oh yea baby,
to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall,
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.
For the disciples, Jesus had become that friend, and he has for countless millions down through the centuries. This is the love of God that Jesus is talking about. It is a gift that you do not have to earn, because we don’t earn friendship. It is given to us, because Jesus has given himself to us, and to the world. This is what he means when he speaks of the commandment that undergirds God’s gift of love: “Love one another.” To take this seriously is what it means to be a Christian. This is what it means to be a friend of God.
The friends of God, I suspect, don’t think of themselves as anything special, or as someone who has an inside pipe line to God. But they know about the gift of love that somehow entered their lives and turned them around. When it happened they probably don’t know, except that they found themselves being released from the addictive need for denial and escape, for power or money or control over others as the motivation that one time had driven their lives. It is often hard to describe our inner journey except to say that they had found a new sense of meaning for their lives, such as being a friend to those who had no friends. And they began to find people like this everywhere. These people, of whom I speak, are the world’s bridge builders that build connections between people and groups that are separated by fear, or violence, or pride, or just plane loneliness. These are the friends of which Jesus speaks, men and women who have discovered the gift of God’s friendship that they do not fully understand accept that they have discovered a new sense of joy that empowers their lives. This is the gift of which Jesus speaks.
Our passage from the Gospel of John is a part of the church’s memory. There is no other passage in Scripture that is anymore intimate in its description of God’s love for each of us and the world in which we live. The call to discipleship is a call to embrace the love that can overcome violence and hatred and greed. Today, in the words of Jesus, we are given the invitation again, reminding us: “You did not choose me, I have chosen you. I appointed you to go on and bear fruit, fruit that shall last. . . . This is my commandment to you, love one another.” And we will recall this invitation again when in a few moments we will break bread together, “in remembrance of him.” It is in the sharing of this friendship of Jesus that we discover the joy that only God can give. . . . and God offers this to you at this moment in this place, lest we forget who we are and whom we are called to be. Amen.